15 April 2009

A (near-) perfect day at the marché

Paris offers no shortage of places to shop for food. Supermarkets are useful for staples and 5-euro bottles of wine (we have found an outstanding 5-euro Cahors at Monoprix that has become our house wine). Then there are the rue commerçantes, streets with a high density of specialty food stores. Our local, rue des Belles Feuilles, is typical of such streets, with 2 butchers, 2 bakeries, 3 different fruit-and-vegetable vendors, a fish monger, 2 cheese shops, an Italian specialty store, and a variety of take-away food sources, all in a little over a block. Some of these shops are self-serve, some are not. Our preferred cheese vendor sells only raw-milk cheeses that they age themselves. It pushes the limits of my French, but I really enjoy talking with the cheese-guy about the various choices from given regions. I'm sure one could have similar conversations with most of the vendors, and recently a young enthusiastic fellow at a local fruit store took it upon himself to educate me about the differences between fraises (strawberries, from Spain in this case) and gariguettes (gariguette is a term that includes all strawberries, but here is used to denote a variation grown in France that has, according to the kid who was speaking at 400 kph, a more citrusy flavor). You see gariguettes everywhere right now, for a hefty 12 – 15 euros/kilo, compared to 3 – 5 euros/kilo for fraises. I intend to try some, but I want to make sure they're really ripe. Still seems early. There are 2 supermarkets on this same street, which seems like strange competition, but apparently there's business enough for everyone, and it's nice to be able to pick up milk and cereal at the supermarket and then get vegetables and cheese from the speciality vendors. Trés convenient.

The third shopping option is the myriad of outdoor markets that usually occur about twice a week in any given spot. The city of Paris lists no fewer than 79 such markets in the 20 arrondissements, and they vary widely in size and quality. I went to check out 2 yesterday in the 8th, since I had a couple of other errands to run there, and one of them had just 1 sad little stand by itself, and the other was basically a grocery store. On the other end of the spectrum is one of our local markets, on av President Wilson, a 3-block long run of raw food vendors, prepared food vendors, and people selling clothing, jewelery, rugs, you name it. Unlike farmer's markets in the US, the vast majority of people selling at the various Paris markets are not growers (though there are a few farmers markets and organic markets)-- they all buy their goods from the same gigantic wholesale market, and the full spectrum of quality and price is available.

Olive vendor at Pres Wilson
One of many butchers at Pres Wilson
Spice vendor at Pres Wilson

Though I enjoy shopping on the rue commerçantes, I enjoy the outdoor markets best. It takes a little while, but I do a full walk-through the market first to figure out who has the best looking, or best-priced, examples of what I want before buying. Today's trip to the President Wilson market was just about perfect.

I wasn't in the market for anything particularly special (just fava beans or peas, artichokes, potatoes, eggs, and lemons), but that doesn't guarantee success. After striking out at the 2 little markets yesterday, I bought some fava beans at a favorite rue commerçante in the 17th, rue Poncelet, but they weren't that great. Fava beans are very labor-intensive, so you want consistently full pods, and the ones I got yesterday were not big producers, meaning that I got only 80 grams of shelled and peeled beans from about 800 grams of pods after about an hour of work. Ugh. Today, though, I found a vendor who had big plump pods, and I nearly doubled my yield. We love them, and I cook with them whenever I can find somebody else to prep them. Artichokes abound here, in many more varieties than one sees in the US. The smallest varieties can even be eaten raw, and I found some good small ones at the same place as the favas. Good deal.

One of maybe a dozen veg vendors at Pres Wilson

What made the trip today special, though, was unexpectedly scoring some chicken carcasses for stock. In the States, any poultry vendor has an abundance of backs, necks, wings, and breast bones left over from all of the parts they sell, and picking up 5-10 lbs for stock is a sure thing. Here in France, though, people buy (and use) their chickens whole, so whereas I've asked at several butchers, I've never found any “waste” parts available for stock. Today, though, while waiting in line to buy eggs, the woman in front of me ordered a chicken and asked the butcher to bone it out. I watched as he broke it down and tossed the carcass in a bucket behind the counter, waiting for the lady to ask for it. When she left, I tentatively asked if he'd sell me the carcass and the various bones and parts he'd discarded, and it turns out he had 2 back there! And better, he charged me a total of 2 euros for them. The downside was that since they'd been sitting unrefrigerated for part of the morning, they really needed to be used today, which wasn't in my time budget. But priorities are priorities, and so I picked up some carrots, leeks, and onions and set off for home with a spring in my step and basking in my good luck.

A few steps from the market, I stopped to redistribute my haul. I put several of the bags down on a bench at a bus stop, and while moving the leeks into my messenger bag, knocked my box of eggs off the bench and onto the ground, where it landed with a pronounced CRACK. D'oh. Hoping it was only 1, I carefully picked up the box, and 6 eggs' worth of goo slid out and onto the sidewalk. Double d'oh! I tossed what was left of the mess in the trash and headed back to the market, where the butcher gave me a puzzled look as I stood in line. He laughed when I told him I'd broken all of my eggs and mock-sternly told me to pay attention this time. Expensive eggs-- sure hope they're worth it.



Florist and fishmongers at Pres Wilson

Some hours later, I've got 3 liters of roasted chicken stock in the freezer, and we had a nice dinner of a frisee salad with a potato-and-artichoke gallette and home-made pasta with merguez sausage, fava beans, and mint. Shame about the eggs, but a pretty good day at the market.

The day's haul (eggs in the fridge, for safety)

Something new (and delicious) to do with artichokes...

Spicy sausage, fava, and mint-- now that's good eating.

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